"A Matter of Ownership • A Matter of Discourse:
Making/Writing/Reclaiming the Stories of Our City"

I
Metropolis Stripped: meditations on the Production of Space
I act, I narrate, therefore space…
We make space what it is…
Language makes space…
Action makes space…(1)

To artists, creative writers, architects, cultural practitioners and urban researchers, space is a performative category: I act, I narrate, I make, I measure, I count, I divide, therefore space…

There is no discussion of space possible beyond what we do and how we speak of it. To artists and practitioners of space, essential definitions of space may be a little too far-fetched, plus they do not really describe the concrete and diverse activities of space-makers being in the world.(2)

Space anticipates/embraces/implicates/signifies…domination, appropriation…as much as innovative creation…

Space is producible, malleable, expandable, appropriable, pertaining to our cognizance, constructible and de-constructible…

Space is producible and re-producible in terms of meanings.
Space is producible and re-producible in terms of usage.
Space is producible and re-producible for the pertinently unknown.

Space is as much concrete as it is illusory…

Our urban space is heavily managed. The question is who manages, how, for what purposes and for whose interest…

You want to go from point A to point B.  The rule of urban space management is almost always to forbid a straight line between the two points.

I often walk from my home on Robinson Road to Para/Site Art Space on Po Yan Street. A straight line drawn between the two places on a map suggests a distance of 500 meters (-- gradient not included; the difference in altitude between the two places should be around 50 meters). But if I choose to take a taxi on a rainy day, I would have to first go east (instead of west) to make a big detour via Upper Albert Road, probably through the street between Fringe Club and Lan Kwai Fong, on to Wellington Street, Queen’s Road Central, continue west, then turn east again at the junction of Queen’s Road Central and Queen’s Road West, to move through a block on Hollywood Road before turning south into Po Yan Street where Para/Site is. The entire journal will be roughly 2,400 meters. It often takes me much less to just walk to Para/Site except that the steep slope does not make the walk very inviting in a steamy summer afternoon or on a rainy day.

One may look at it positively; that the way roads in Central are cut to facilitate curious wandering through small lanes and minor streets where the less typical aspects of business Central are experienced. One also experiences how urban renewal in Central somehow had to give way to the sloping land surface and curving contours of the area, thus allowing marks of human construction of multiple time sheets to lay over one another. One may, more critically, suggest that communication between the mid-levels and Sheung Wan and what is west of it is rather disruptive – as if direct, close contacts are not encouraged. One way to break away from the constraints of managed space is to discover new routes, go astray of designated passage ways, and make the less walkable paths more walkable and meaningful.  To produce space…

One key feature of top-down urban space management is to “produce” new spaces (often “places”) and additional spatial experiences by creating a walk longer than that of a straight line: what is produced is not only a longer walk, but a different, or totally unexpected experience. Managed routes often produce a cluster of experiences, mapped out by meandering paths which designated flow, which carry narrative qualities.

The different possible journeys between my home and Para/Site – virtual (point-to-point and across a map), via walking, and on a taxi – imply very different spatial narratives and story capacities of the Central District because of the very different parts of Central I penetrate in a series.

Produced spaces are one way or other narrative spaces…

There are many ways to cut roads for the ordinary walker on the Victoria Peak, for example. The one most used now – the famous path that goes around the peak to form a full circle – has at least two unique narratives… If we choose to do the anti-clockwise walk, we begin on Lugard Road with a brief break through a passage of trees like walking through the woods, which at one point dramatically opens to a grand aerial view of the Victoria Harbor, which then gradually take us away from the bustling city to retreat to the hilly side of Pokfulam and hills on the southern part of the island, then back to Mt. Austin Road to the Peak Tram station. This spatial drama – the gradual retreat from the busy city into the depths of greens – is reversed if one chooses to do the clockwise walk and begin with Mt. Austin Road. One immediately retreats into the hills and at the end of a 45-minute break, the bustling city gradually grows in one’s field of vision, bit by bit, until one joins the huge crowd of tourist at the end of Lugard Road on the square in front of the Peak Tram Terminal. The motif of the spatial narrative in this case is a quick, immediate dive into the greens with gradual return into urban life.

We may think of how the growing number of covered bridges in Central and Admiralty keep redefining our psycho-geography in these areas…

Read also Warren’s text on Tseung Kwan O on the works of the Map Office projects. Whereas the way Laurent and Valerie frame the high-rises has embedded narrative power; Warren’s post-exhibition story-telling simply extends their works by extracting and laying bare the hidden, lived narratives of those pictures.

Imagine unwalkable spaces and ways to break through them…

“Ideological and political hegemony in any society depends on an ability to control the material context of personal and social experience,” says postmodern urban geographer David Harvey.(3)

Producible spaces and the work of spatial production are concrete acts of government. They also open the doors to intervention…(4)

Management of concrete space and physical activities are hand in hand with those projects that deal with fictional, imaginary accounts of concrete space.

When French critical theorist Henri Lefebvre worked out the conceptual tools to contemplate and problematize the oppression of modern urban living, he did not simply talk about production of space as a pure project of social domination, but as possibilities for critique and intervention, implied in the inseparable triad of “spatial practice – representation of space – representational space.” One underlying feature of the triad is to bring what has often been understood as isolated categories of social administration, cultural practices and artistic activities on to the same plane, as well as to see them as always and necessarily implicated in one another.(5)

Is production of space really an open game?

Reclaiming the ownership of our city is not utopian, neither a revolutionary work nor momentary revisions. It is on-going dialectics, asserted via continuous, renewable tactics, and experienced in the very moment of actions.

The game is open: there is no choice but to act and narrate, to create new modes of articulations and to create new situations.

II.
Art-making, Exhibiting, Writing & Story-telling: Theory = Practice
How do the exhibition and the symposium work together at Substation? Standing by the belief of “theory = practice” (rather than “theory Vs praxis”), I see a fluid relation between art-making and discursive practice despite their obvious differences. Exposition (which belongs to discursive practices) is assumed to seek to clarify and close up ambiguities, whereas an art work and the process of art-making embody, transform, and open up; the former demands comprehension and argumentation, whereas the latter invites multiplicity of reception/perception. However, plentiful instances of exposition and art-making have demonstrated both their polemicist possibilities and their power to problematize. In the process of preparing the proceedings of our bilateral exchange, I find it almost impossible to “summarize” – in the normal sense of it – the five “expositions” at the symposium. How can I do justice to them when each number is not only the exposition of a pack of ideas, but also a creative process in action, delivered in a highly performative overtone? Let me start from the “beginning”…

In the Beginning…: governmentality, care for its people, the basic story of home
As part of the bilateral exchange between Substation and Para/Site, six presenters from Hong Kong delivered to the audience in Singapore five approaches to make sense of the urban space of HK and to examine the many issues implicated. The five presentations can be understood as five different unique stories about the city of HK, evolved from the presenters’ own on-going research and professional practice.

Tim Li kicked off the symposium by outlining the “official” story of government housing in the Post-World War II era. It is the story of concrete housing vis-à-vis architectural considerations. In a way it is also the story of the evolvement of HK’s urban (visual) landscape as well as its typical icon – packed high-rises made up of cubicles piled up in grand multiplicity, the signifier of the “local-ness” of Hong Kong.

If stories are necessarily discourses, what has the official government story on local housing quietly guided us to believe? What kinds of details and arguments are embedded? What kind of persuasion is effectuated, and for what ends? Reworking Li’s material for this publication, I was stunned by the highly discursive character of the various chronologies and sketches of milestones of public housing from which he drew his story of our homes. A few discourses stand out among others. On the one hand, the “progress story” of our home highlights the necessity for ultimate property ownership of the individual household as the ideal, an objective that the government had struggled for about 20 years in post-war Hong Kong to gradually achieve. The loan given to people who want to purchase their own flats is phenomenally called “Home Starter.” The second discourse, though a bit muddy, advocates the gradual and expanding collaboration between the government and the private sector in financing, managing and designing public housing. The term “public,” too, has an obscure history in available accounts. The term “public housing” is in most cases replaced by its many synonyms: “long-term housing,” “permanent housing,” “public rental housing,” “resettlement blocks,” “temporary housing,” “low-cost housing” and “estate.” Great emphasis was placed on enhancing the “self-contained” character of individual flats. From remedial, ad-hoc, emergency-driven housing policies to projective policies with one 10-year plan after another, the idea of an “estate” increasingly highlights the unique communal identity and self-contained-ness of each housing complex, at the same time ensuring inter-estate transportation. Here, I recall the failure of Tuen Mun as a project of a self-contained new town. The ever congested Tuen Mun Road is less an umbilical cord that channels the energy of the urban core than a narrow exit for Tuen Mun residents to “get out” of the area to lead a normal life. I also recall critical writings on how the idea of a self-sufficient housing estate can work against housewives’ right of mobility beyond the vicinity of their homes.(6)

A revisit of Tim Li’s material incited us to pin down, for the readers of this publication, the government’s own account of public housing as the basic backdrop for the dialogues of the symposium presenters. The use of a chronology, however, invites no pretense of sheer objectivity. Chronologies may look like innocent vehicles for facts, but in fact can be highly selective, and therefore discursive, accounts, amounting to sophisticated arguments with preferred readings. Chronologies are as persuasive as stories, and often more. The chronology that Li and Lai have created is deliberately elliptical and open-ended: facts of public housing rendered in official government accounts sit side by side with highly personal anecdotes and other so-called shared social events. The resulting chronology walks the opposite way of comprehensive history. Our inventive chronology embraces both governmentality (top-down production of space) and ordinary individuals’ everyday creativity, that is, activities by which they make space what it becomes. It seems to invite readers to weave in more of their own stories of home. It plays with chance and juxtaposition, with the contrast between the monumental and the micro. It collapses memory and history. It houses emotions and hidden desires. It begs a complex view of reality that honors the overlaying of temporal and spatial sheets, at once social and personal…

Creating our Historical Documents…
The five-story account for this publication is a transformed version of the original presentation in Singapore. Tim Li has, for such a purpose, next to the chronology, created a piece of art-on-paper as an aftermath contemplation of the government blueprints for an ideal home. The six drawings in the series invite readers to look at history in a very different way.

Within a rather similar framework of public housing, Linda Lai thickened and complicated Li’s story with her visual discourse of Hong Kong’s urban space detectable in local mainstream and independent films/videos. “The public housing estate” is a highly stigmatized entity. In movies from the 1970s, it is epitomized by endless staircases, rooms crammed with eclectic objects and dark corners that form the natural backdrop for crime; whereas in the 1990s, the same meandering and shaded spaces conceal and reveal the total loss and sense of alienation of the young generation. Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei are both heavily read as subterranean spaces: of clandestine control, for illegal immigrants’ first tests of survival, or as sheer signifiers of the “local” and the “quotidian” with an anti-economist stance. The subterranean can also be the trespassed land of the nostalgic, relentless spirits, such as in the case of Sheung Wan and the Western District on Hong Kong Island. Not only is the pastoral/communal ideal long gone and irretrievable, but the city space is also a semi-fiendish zone, with haunting memories returning as walking ghosts and the living dead. The argument that our “place” forms our being and action seems to dictate this particular history. The fine line between the city space as the imaginary and as emotive utterances for the conditions of being in the city begins to dissolve. It is almost impossible to break through the thick wall of representation and discourse that have given conceptual shapes, ideational boundaries and textures of emotions to our urban life. Is it even possible to free our desires from the discourses that inform and form our imaginations? As artists, how do we live with these discourses? From a different perspective, the very act of Lai’s assemblage of movie clips from a broad range of sources speaks of the intervention of a true cinephile of the local cinema of HK. Her stock-taking exercise activates the bulk of local films for its potential to be a folk archive waiting for more stories to be generated. As a visual archive as well, HK moving-image practices play an often overlooked role in preserving images of the city space of HK, which is constantly subject to ceaseless demolition and reconstruction.

Taking on a more praxis-oriented approach, Reine Wong and Gutierrez + Portefaix of the Map office delivered two very different ways of creating “documents” for the city. Deploying the metaphor of Hong Kong as a huge laboratory to open up the vocabulary for space and architecture, Gutierrez + Portefaix’s print documents point to a huge catalogue of what their “cameras” collected based on theoretically and empirically informed analysis. The Map office’s work reminds me of a critical method that I have been particularly drawn to: the persistence on (urban) surfaces as opposed to deep structures, and the entrenchment in observation and classification as opposed to depth hermeneutics. The questions to raise here are many. Where does the documentation of “observable surfaces” end within the broader framework of Critical Theory? In the light of what kinds of productive context should we make sense of an inventory? How innocent are “documents”? How far can documents travel without discursive activities? How do we set the parameters of the tests in a laboratory setting? One answer I am proposing is to explore the horizontal connectivity of the Map Office’s documents – to move beyond their projects, and across other document- and discourse-making activities to seek for connections and dialogues between their works and those of other presenters. Hopefully, juxtaposition is an interventionist, critical activity in its own right, or at least works in that direction.

Reine Wong (and Kongkee, her collaborator) also engaged in classification in their research-based digital project Take a Stroll, but more as a creative activity at the end of many hours of playful urban drifting with a camera wearing an amorphous lens. Wong’s classification exercise combines heavy doses of automatism with deliberate appropriation of what is, in her view, the most representative local language of space – that of the real estate agencies. Her analysis landed between visual re-invention and the critique of the language that forms our consciousness of space. Her ultimate interest is to re-insert her own subjectivities into the highly managed city space of Hong Kong. A summary inventory, however, gives only limited glimpses to the sense of wonder and humor, and the joy of re-discovery of one’s living space – for that exists only in the actual processes of walking, looking and shooting, or else dubbed the on-going performance of spatial production.

Somewhat like a grand finale but more than that, Jaspar Lau’s reflexive delivery drew from the small and big news items on Hong Kong and Singapore that fell within the time frame of his contemplation and preparation for the talk, thus pointing back to the very act of the here-and-now engagement with his critical assignment. His discourse integrates anecdotes, facts and data, hearsays, political discourses, citations, visual signification and commentaries, forcefully demonstrating the impossibility to settle on singular arguments or expository modes, at the same time defying any monolithic vision of urban living. Readers may also refer to another piece of Lau’s contribution, the essay in the middle section of this proceeding, in which he demonstrates the same degree of rigor in integration via writing, while always pointing back to the materiality and temporal constraint of the act of writing.

Each of the five stories maps its own trajectories and yet, in one way or other, they intersect, or certain strands of each story crisscross, to form a network very real and concrete, yet escaping the attention of the ordinary persons lost in their daily routine. The five presentations are instances of the struggle to reclaim our ownership of the city in which we live – via discursive construction, art-making, collecting, polemics, and, above all, via the transformation of theory into practice.

Rather than reproducing the live presentation we did at Substation, we have invited all symposium speakers to re-digest their material and transform their discussion into a series of questions interacting with selected pictures of their choice. In the pages that follow, except for “the Basic Story: Whose Story?” (an inventive chronology) and Tim Li’s “Shadow Casts in Time & Space,” the individual presentations will be recapitulated as question-image pairings, further opening up our dialogues instead of bring them to a narrative closure.


1. Here, in a meditative form, I have taken a short-cut in laying out my appeal to a peculiar approach to space, a performative approach, grounded in post-structuralist theories of language. What is implicit in this position is my suspension of views of space as pure abstraction, or any vision of space as ontology.

2. Heidegger, who argues that space is less a limit (boundary) than a creation of what it encircles, more to do with doing than knowing – a matter of “what happens if I do it,” the active function of “being in the world.” See Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, “Introduction,” Thinking Space, Crang and Thrift (eds.) (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 6.

3. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA & Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 226, 227, 239.

4. There is a strong linkage and dialogue between a speech-act-based approach and critical theories that price intervention. Marxian theorist Lefebvre, in particular, begs for concrete changes by providing us with a set of vocabulary that embodies descriptive analysis, critical diagnosis and language/action-based intervention, all in one.

5. See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space; trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford UK & Cambridge US: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 21, 33, 38-9.

6. See Chan, Kam-wah, 1997: Social Construction of Gender Inequality in the Housing System, Housing Experience of Women in Hong Kong. Ashgate Publishing, Hong Kong. See also: 陳錦華,1997: <女性主義:突破傳統的角度看城市與房屋問題>,載於陳錦華,胡文龍,余偉錦,李志輝(著)《香港城市與房屋:城市社會學初探》,香港:三聯書店。

 

“Space is less the already existing setting for such stories, than the production of space through that taking place, through the act of narration.” (J. Donald)

Space is an eventful and unique happening. (J. Hillis Miller)

Space is less a limit than a creation of what it encircles, more to do with doing than knowing, less a matter of `how accurate is this?’ than of `what happens if I do it?’. (Heidegger)